Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a former parliamentary candidate and a Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute.
I have always been passionate about defending freedom of religion or belief as a human right for everyone, of all religions and none. I have worked for many years with and for the Rohingyas and other Muslims in Burma, the Ahmadiyya and Shi’a in Indonesia, the Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners in China and twice visited and campaigned for an atheist in jail in Indonesia. My colleagues in CSW have similarly championed the cause of the Baha’is, the Yazidis, Hindus in Pakistan and others. Our motto is “everyone free to believe”.
However, for some time there has been a sense that the persecution of Christians has not been receiving the attention it deserves in certain quarters of our foreign policy establishment. Regardless of your views of Christianity, in simple statistical terms Christians around the world are persecuted in the most countries, from the widest range of sources – from radical Islamism, extremist Hinduism, Buddhist nationalism, from Communist authoritarianism, militant secularism or non-State actors such as paramilitaries and drug cartels in parts of Latin America. The International Society for Human Rights estimates that Christians are victims of 80 per cent of all acts of religious intolerance, even though they only represent 30 per cent of the global population. The Pew Research Center’s most recent report on global restrictions on religion states that the number of countries where various religious groups were harassed either by governments or social groups increased in 2016, and the most widely targeted groups were Christians, who face harassment in 144 countries, closely followed by Muslims, in 142 countries.
That is why Jeremy Hunt’s announcement on Boxing Day, to conduct a review of the Foreign Office’s response to the persecution of Christians worldwide, is so significant. In the five months since he became Foreign Secretary, I have already been impressed by the way Hunt has prioritised human rights, and shown personal leadership on many issues. As I have written on this site previously, his Policy Exchange speech was one of the most important speeches I have read by any Foreign Secretary. His focus on media freedom, his handling of Yemen, his decision to meet the wives of human rights lawyers jailed in China, his visit to Burma, his statements on the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, handling of the case of Matthew Hedges jailed in the United Arab Emirates, and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in prison in Iran, are just a few examples of how he has increased attention on human rights. This latest announcement is another, and is potentially the most courageous.
I had the privilege of participating in a meeting a week ago, hosted by the Foreign Secretary, alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, other senior church leaders and NGOs, and survivors of persecution from Iraq, Pakistan and Eritrea. I had the opportunity to highlight the situation in China, Indonesia, Burma and North Korea. The persecution of Christians in the Middle East is of course the most egregious, but it is not the only part of the world where Christians are in danger. I told Hunt that just three days before our meeting, I had received an email report about a Christian community in Burma holding a pre-Christmas celebration and being attacked and stoned by a mob of fifty militant Buddhist nationalists. China is facing the most severe crackdown on Christianity since the Cultural Revolution, involving the closure of many churches, the imprisonment of pastors and the destruction of crosses. In Indonesia, I visited three churches in Surabaya earlier this year which had been attacked by a family of suicide bombers. Across Asia, Africa, Latin America as well as the Middle East, Christians increasingly live in fear.
So a review of the Foreign Office’s policy specifically on the persecution of Christians worldwide is extremely welcome. We will see what comes out of the review when the Bishop of Truro, appointed to lead it, reports next Easter. I hope that at a minimum it will lead to the British government being more consistently outspoken, using its diplomatic networks to better defend persecuted Christians, ensuring our aid policy genuinely does not discriminate on religious grounds, for or against any religion, but recognises that faith-based aid groups can be part of the solution, and co-ordinates better with like-minded governments – particularly the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the EU’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief and the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief – to ensure that the crisis facing Christians worldwide is no longer ignored.
As the Foreign Secretary says, “Britain has long championed international religious freedom. So often, the persecution of Christians is a telling early warning sign of the persecution of every minority… We must never allow a misguided political correctness to inhibit our response to the persecution of any religious minority.”
The test will be in the outcomes of the review and in the implementation of what recommendations may come, but in taking this initiative Hunt has already symbolically shifted the Foreign Office in a better direction, and for that he deserves our appreciation.